“Many of Montana’s most vulnerable residents, who already fear the state’s court system, feel they have nowhere to turn to get help with legal problems.”
A recent study showed that those Montanans who earn low-to moderate incomes, along with the homeless population, Native Americans, veterans, seniors, domestic violence victims, children, and the disabled don’t know how to access legal assistance or address other obstacles like paperwork and bad past experiences with the courts.
As the Billings (MT) Gazette reported in “Legal problems mount for most vulnerable, Supreme Court commission finds,” between October 2015 and October 2016, the Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission held public forums in seven towns around the state to hear from Montanans about their struggles with legal problems. The commission found that many poor people in legal crisis over housing problems, parenting and custody disputes, domestic violence, and debt collection frequently experience other non-legal problems at the same time.
Mental illness, substance abuse, threats to well-being and a lack of transportation can intensify legal problems. These issues can exacerbate already challenging circumstances. An inability to access services can turn many civil legal problems into criminal legal problems, which are only made worse by an inability to access programs and services, the commission found.
The report also found that there’s only one statewide organization that concentrates on addressing the legal needs of Montana’s 148,000 disabled. Those with disabilities face challenges such as abuse and neglect; a lack of access to programs, facilities, and mental health services; employment discrimination and education needs, as well as housing issues.
The report also explained that Montana is seeing a rising need in elder law, with the report noting that the number of people age 65 and older has increased 21% from 2000 to 2010, with many living in rural areas. In addition, seniors are susceptible to all types of scams and can have healthcare issues that cause them severe financial challenges. Many of the elderly can’t use services online and have no access to legal aid organizations or volunteer attorney programs. The report also found that veterans and children under age 18 without parents or guardians have difficulty within the legal system.
The commission created a list of recommendations, which included: (i) the development of a statewide inventory of services and programs available in each area of the state and the creation of a way for the needy to contact these services; (ii) the increased promotion of a better understanding that civil legal needs can have a negative effect on health outcomes, housing, school attendance, job performance, the transition for returning veterans, the re-entry into the community for offenders and the protection of seniors; and (iii) securing stable funding to create a continuum of services from self-help programs to civil legal aid, mediation, and dispute resolution.
Reference: Billings (MT) Gazette (December 30, 2016) “Legal problems mount for most vulnerable, Supreme Court commission finds”